I can still see the look on Marian's face. Her husband, Dan, had recently left her for another woman, and she was trying to understand what had happened and what to do next. As Marian's counselor, I asked about her husband's family history. Dan's father had left for another woman when Dan was 13, and Dan hadn't spoken to his dad since.
"That's interesting," I said. "His father left when Dan, the oldest in his family, was 13. How old is your oldest child?" Marian answered, "Thirteen." Then it hit her—Dan had acted out a generational pattern with frightening precision.
"So Dan was 'destined' to do this?" Marian asked.
"No," I said. "But when we don't deal with the baggage from our family-of-origin, it's easy for generational patterns to repeat themselves. Dan apparently had stored away all that past baggage, hoping it would stay hidden in its place."
Generational patterns are behaviors that repeat themselves from one generation to the next. The Bible says that though God forgives "every kind of sin and rebellion," he will not "leave sin unpunished, but I punish the children for the sins of their parents to the third and fourth generations" (Exodus 34:7, NLT).
We see generational patterns especially in abusive situations. People who are physically or verbally abusive to their spouse usually were abused by their parents, or they witnessed one parent abuse the other.
We also see a generational pattern in divorces. Children of divorce have a higher chance of divorcing.
When Ray and Cathy came to see me, they wanted to break that pattern—both sets of parents had divorced. Ray and Cathy were committed to making their marriage last, but they were struggling. They wondered if their vows were strong enough to break the pattern.
I proposed they take a look at Isaiah 51:1-2: "Listen to me, all who hope for deliverance—all who seek the LORD! Consider the quarry from which you were mined, the rock from which you were cut! Yes, think about your ancestors" (NLT).
Isaiah was suggesting that if we want deliverance, we need to understand the beginnings of the problem. Ray and Cathy needed to understand what their parents' lives were like before the divorces, and what had been going on in the generation that shaped their parents.
Before we can break patterns of the past, we must understand them. We need insight into how personal and marital boundaries have been handled. Then we can identify what types of roles people have played in their family. And we can articulate some of the unspoken rules we were taught.
I ask couples to write down everything they can remember about their family-of-origin, then talk to their spouse, who can note things about their family dynamics that the person can't see. Then they gather information from their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
This research may uncover significant events or issues, such as alcoholism, divorces, deaths, suicides. Who was involved? What were they like and what were their relationships like? To whom were those people close and whom did they seek to avoid? Answering these questions can point to generational patterns.
I caution couples not to blame anyone for the problems they're having. They must take full responsibility for themselves and their marriage. The goal is to find freedom from these generational patterns, rising above the negative influences of the past.
When dealing with the past, resolution can only come through forgiveness. When I note this, couples usually say, "I've already forgiven them" or, "I'll never forgive them!"
As Christians, we often feel pressure to forgive too quickly, and we end up not fully forgiving at all. We need to work through the emotions and/or consequences of what we've forgiven. And the more serious the offense, the more time it may take.
The other option is never to forgive. Our hurts from the past may be so deep that even the thought of forgiving is beyond us. But whatever we don't forgive from our past will always seek to express itself in our present relationships.
Often we don't forgive because of misunderstandings about the nature of forgiveness. One is that if I forgive, I must forget. We think we must forget because God forgives and forgets: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). God can forgive and forget because he doesn't need to learn anything in the process. We forgive and remember because the memories help us learn important lessons about our relationships.
Another misunderstanding is the fear that if we forgive, we somehow condone the hurtful behavior. But forgiveness never turns an evil act into something good. Forgiving only cancels the debt; it doesn't mean the debt never existed. And it certainly never erases an evil. Nor does it let the other person "off the hook." Forgiving frees us from bitterness and resentment and breaks generational patterns.
A third misunderstanding is that forgiveness and reconciliation are the same. We think if we forgive, we must be reconciled to that person, regardless of what the person says or does. That's wrong. We can have forgiveness without reconciliation, but we can't have reconciliation without forgiveness. Forgiveness requires only my effort to accomplish the task; reconciliation requires that both of us enter the process.
Failure to effectively resolve our past is the fuel that keeps generational patterns alive. So how can we break the cycle?
Recognize the pattern or behavior. Be honest about what's happened. My father was abusive. Long after he died, I finally came to terms with that, after blocking it from my mind for years. When I married, I was determined to be a better husband and dad than my father had been. But because I ignored the pain my father inflicted, I began to treat my wife and sons the same way as my dad. When my sister pointed that out to me, I was forced to face the truth about my past relationship with my father.
Grieve the past. When my father died, I didn't grieve. I tried, but I couldn't. Finally, once I faced the truth 20 years later, I mourned. I was angry; I was sad. Memories returned that I'd shut out for years. I wept and I raged. I talked with my wife. All my buried emotions rose to the surface. I needed to talk with people I trusted; I had to express what was going on inside me.
Set boundaries. If my dad were alive, I would've had to set some healthy boundaries so he couldn't keep hurting me as he had when I was young. When we allow people from our past to continue hurtful behavior, we can't forgive. If I try to forgive without setting boundaries to ward off the hurtful behavior, I merely excuse the behaviors, which only encourages the person to continue. If Dad were still alive, I would have had to limit my contact with him, as well as my family's.
Forgive. What's been a process now becomes a decisive act. I make the choice to cancel the debt. My father didn't owe me anything anymore.
Consider reconciling. Up to this point, I haven't involved the other person in my process. Since my father was dead, I couldn't involve him. But even if he were alive, I wouldn't have included him in the first four steps. Don't try to reconcile until after you've worked through forgiveness. Even then, keep the boundaries in place, so your expectations are minimal and the risk of additional hurt is limited.
AFTER I WORKED through these steps, I discovered I was a different person. My generational pattern was broken. My wife, Jan, says
I became a better husband after that. I felt—and still feel—an incredible release from the painful repetition of what I'd experienced growing up.
So can you.
Adapted from The Complete Marriage Book. © 2002 by David and Jan Stoop. Used by permission of Fleming H. Revell/Baker Book House.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.